Mahfouz: the unfinished Trilogy

I don’t like giving up on a book after I’ve started reading it, but I’m afraid I’ve just had to abandon The Cairo Trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz after struggling for over a month to finish the first volume, Palace Walk.

What was my problem?   I think it was the focus, in minute detail, on the daily events in a household dominated by the tyrannical Al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, a household ‘that did not allow human emotions their rightful place and where the affections of the heart were hidden behind veils of self-denial and hypocrisy’ (p170).

It is 1919, the period of the Egyptian Revolution against the post-war British protectorate in Egypt, following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.  Al-Sayyid Ahmad and his wife, Amina, are strict Muslims (far more rigid in their adherence to religious precepts than many of their neighbours, we learn).  The atmosphere in the family is portrayed as stifling,  especially for the mother and her daughters. Each acquiesce to their traditional role of no education beyond primary school, submission to the father’s domination, and marriage and devotion to family as a woman’s only duties.  The women never go out of the house alone (except in one memorable scene where Amina ventures out to a local mosque, with tragic consequences) and there are many scenes that involve the mother of daughters snatching glimpses of the street through the lattice work of the balcony screen.

Al-Sayyid Ahmad is portrayed as tyrannical at home, but, hypocritically, as enjoying alchohol and casual sexual relationships outside it. Yet, despite his authoritarianism and hypocrisy, both his sons and his daughters show their father unquestioning respect. Exchanges between family members follow strict formulas and expectations, invariably involving quotations from the appropriate verse of The Koran. There is little genuine communication between characters, instead often outright dissimulation and even lying. Mahfouz  shows how, at all costs a false front must be preserved, both within the family and in the family’s face to the outside world.  The family home at Palace Walk is a fortress of sorts against the outside world.

The Cairo Trilogy is a family saga, centred around al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad and his family – his wife, his children (three sons and two daughters), and eventually his grandchildren. It covers the period from 1917 to 1944: Palace Walk covers the period from 1917 to 1919, Palace of Desire jumps ahead and covers the period from 1924 to 1927, and Sugar Street covers the period 1935 to 1944.

Written in the early 1950s, the three volumes describe the daily events in a middle-class Egyptian family, recording a way of life that was then disappearing under the impact of western influence and the pressures of modern life. The political developments of the times are interwoven into the lives of the many characters. Members of the protagonist family represent the main trends in the political life of the country: the Wafd party, with its heroes Saad Zaghloul and Mustafa Nahhas (the party with which Mahfouz associated himself), the burgeoning socialist movement as exemplified by the writings of Salama Mousa, and the beginnings of a fundamentalist Islamic movement.

The political events that form the backdrop to Palace Walk are dramatic, but only intrude into the lives of the Jawad family members towards the end of the novel – and even then, are dealt with by Mahfouz in an undemonstrative and rather distanced manner.  Soon after the end of the First World War in Europe, a delegation of Egyptian nationalist activists made a request to the High Commissioner to end the British Protectorate in Egypt and Sudan. Meanwhile, a mass movement for the full independence of Egypt and Sudan was being organized at a grassroots level. Seeing the popular support that the movement enjoyed, and fearing social unrest, in March 1919 the British exiled the leaders to Malta. For several weeks until April, demonstrations and strikes across Egypt by students, civil servants, peasants, workers, and religious leaders became such a daily occurrence that normal life was brought to a halt. The movement was characterised by the participation of both men and women, and united Muslim and Christian Egyptians. By July 1919, 800 Egyptians were dead, and numerous villages had been burnt down.  The revolts forced Britain to cede Egyptian independence in 1922.

The Trilogy was considered a remarkable achievement, particularly since the Arabic novel had only recently come into being.  It rapidly became a best-seller in the Arab world, and those who could not read it came to know its characters through film adaptations.

Naguib Mahfouz won the 1988 Nobel Prize in Literature and was widely regarded as the Arab world’s foremost novelist until his death in 2002 at the age of 94. He was the first Arab writer to receive the Nobel Prize, and while many of his works had been translated into French, Swedish and German, he was largely unknown at that time in the United States and Europe.

Mahfouz was born in Cairo in 1911, and his early childhood was spent in the old city’s Gamaliya quarter, the setting of many of his books.  He came of age in an era of intense nationalist activity against British rule.

After his death, John Ezard wrote in The Guardian:

In 1990, when he was a physically wasted, half-blind yet zestful 79-year-old, I interviewed Naguib Mahfouz in the Ali Baba cafe overlooking Cairo’s central Tahrir Square, where he breakfasted for 40 years and which he had seen change from a Nile-side preserve of the rich to a demotic chaos. “The square has had many scenes,” he said. “It used to be more quiet. Now it is disturbing but more progressive, better for ordinary people – and therefore better for me also, as one who likes his fellow humans.” Any country is fortunate if it produces citizens like him.

Perhaps one day I will return to the Trilogy, but for now I need to break free from its oppressive atmosphere.